Freestyle: Countdown to SXSW 2015
BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m on my way back to South by Southwest, the Texas-sized festival of film, music and interactive technology — now including sessions on gaming, comedy and food trends — that takes over the city of Austin again from March 13 through March 22.
Year over year, the sprawling fest explands its influence, demonstrating the vitality — and complexity — of American pop culture.
Its reach extends to Hawaii — and I can’t wait to jump in and absorb it all.
A conference and festival of interactive media, film and music
Hawaii International Film Festival programming director Anderson Le attends South by each year to find films he’ll earmark for HIFF — films like Maui-born filmmaker Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” a Grand Jury Award-winner at SXSW in 2013.
Musicians attend SXSW to pick up buzz and make deals. In past years, island-music diva Anuhea and ska-rockers Pimpbot played in festival showcases, as have reggae artist Mike Love and hip-hop producer Mr. Carmack.
Hawaii’s Michael Camino (pictured above in Austin during SXSW 2013, standing on his bass), a member of London’s Skinny Lister, will play a high-profile showcase March 18 in Austin’s Convention Center. In 2013, SXSW also was good to Skinny Lister. After NPR’s Bob Boilen heard them busking in a hotel lobby, the band was invited to play on the public radio network’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series.
Jasper Wong and four other regulars from the street-art festival POW! WOW! Hawaii will join artists from Austin in an official SXSW showcase of street art. The goal, said Wong, founder of the Hawaii event, is to “build bridges” between POW! WOW! and SXSW, gain exposure and observe the way a citywide festival is conducted.
Interactive programs attract the highest numbers of Hawaii attendees, as techies and creatives converge to network with peers from across the nation.
Russell Castagnaro, president and general manager of ehawaii.gov, the state government’s official website, will be attending SXSW for the third time. Among his interests: the “gamification” of government web portals to increase their usability and effectiveness.
WHILE much of HIFF’s Asia-Pacific film programming is scouted elsewhere, Le said SXSW ranks with Colorado’s annual Sundance Film Festival for discovering indie films, documentaries, music-centric movies and “midnight” films.
Well-known movies premiering at SXSW 2014 include “Chef,” starring Jon Favreau, which was partially filmed in Austin, and “Veronica Mars,” a crowd-funded sequel to the cult TV series.
“It’s a genre-oriented fest,” Le said. “Like Sundance, but with great barbecue.”
SXSW Film opens with the world premiere of “BRAND: A Second Coming,” a documentary on Russell Brand, the British comedian and actor turned video blogger and political activist. Brand will appear at the fest.
Other speakers include Ava DuVernay, director of Oscar-nominated “Selma,” RZA, director of “The Man With The Iron Fists” and founder of the legendary hip-hop act Wu-Tang Clan, and Brian Grazer, Academy Award–winning producer of “A Beautiful Mind.”
“You need to attend festivals to have face time with different people, to take the pulse of what’s going on,” Le said. “The panels are a great way to meet people, to get ideas.”
Le is also looking to SXSW as a cloudy crystal ball, for clues as to “how technology is changing the distribution landscape for film, and how it’s changing the methods independent filmmakers use to get their work out there.”
SXSW MUSIC is now in its 29th year, billing itself as “the world’s leading music industry event.” It offers daytime panels, talks, a trade show and Music Gear Expo, along with a series of showcase performances at the Austin Convention Center.
At night, showcase performances offer a crazy kaleidoscope of choices, with more than 2,200 regional, national and international acts on 100-plus stages. Once known mainly for alt-country music, hip-hop has become a major thread.
Showcase artists this year include DJ/producer A-Trak, eccentric hip-hop artist Prince Paul, electronic music artists Zeds Dead, prototypical Americana songwriter and humorist Ray Wyllie Hubbard and indie rockers Delta Spirit.
“Nobody gets paid,” Skinny Lister’s Camino said flatly, whether they are a name brand or unknowns. Bands can choose between a minimal showcase stipend and badges that let members attend other SXSW events; most choose the badges.
“You go there hoping to build attention for the band,” Camino said. “In 2013, we played five different official shows and we did busking every day.”
It was busking — in that Austin hotel lobby — that got the band its NPR gig. The band also found a European booking agent at SXSW that year.
“If you just play your one show and leave, it’s not going to work for you,” Camino said. “But if you work your (butt) off, it will pay off. We left South by being glad we did it.”
THE INTERACTIVE stream presents itself as an incubator for sharing ideas, promoting cutting-edge technology and digital creativity. Offerings range from hands-on training to speakers with cultural and industry critiques.
Among the intriguing titles: “The Share Economy is Failing — Abort or Retry?” with Gadi Ben-Yehuda, a Washington, D.C.-based analyst who looks at the topic from public and private angles.
Inaugurated last year, Southbites — also the name of a SXSW-sponsored food-truck lot that operates throughout the fest — is a stream of culinary-themed sessions. Celebrity chef David Chang (Momofuku) tops a lineup presenting panels such as“The Future of Food? A Personal Growing Revolution.”
Also expanding is the SXSW Gaming Expo, a free three-day exhibition that showcases innovations in video games and other aspects of geek culture, along with technology that may appeal to gaming-industry types in Las Vegas and beyond.
Phil Tripp, the liason between SXSW and Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, said festival goers can mix with “great thought leaders and industry creatives” at the fest.
“Each year, I learn a hell of a lot,” Tripp said. “This is now a world stage.
“You may go for music, but you’ll end up rubbing elbows with hackers, poster artists, game developers or comedians,” he said. “There’s so much to discover.”
Elizabeth Kieszkowski is editor of TGIF, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s weekly arts and entertainment section. Reach her via email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.